On Jan. 5, the night before Congress met to certify Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election, Michael Flynn — the retired three-star general, ousted national security adviser and pardoned felon — gave an interview to the prominent conspiracy theorist Alex Jones in which he assured the viewers of Infowars.com that Donald Trump would serve as president for another four years. It was a certainty, Flynn said. He referred to his experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan — “taking over countries, or running elections in countries” — and broke the present conflict down to the binary of “we” versus “they.” Flynn did not specify how, exactly, the intervention into the American election would work, though he alluded to “procedures” related to Trump’s authorities under a national emergency because of “foreign interference from multiple countries.”
“They tried to silence you,” Jones said, referring to Flynn’s 2017 expulsion from the White House. “They failed. Now you’ve come through the fire as a phoenix.” Later that night, Flynn addressed a crowd of several thousand (Jones said there were a million) gathered in Washington. “We are the ones that will decide,” Flynn said. The following afternoon, as the electoral votes were being counted, a pro-Trump mob invaded the Capitol.
Flynn’s re-emergence on the national stage was taking place almost four years to the date after the events that brought him down during the first days of Trump’s presidency — events that have since become the founding legend of a right-wing mythology. The crucial date was Jan. 24, 2017, when Flynn, the incoming national security adviser, sat down in his new West Wing office with two F.B.I. agents, who wanted to talk to him about a series of phone calls he had with the Russian ambassador. The battle that ensued over those phone calls cost Flynn his job, and later he would twice plead guilty to a felony for making false statements.
Flynn’s dismissal was among the first public flash points in what would become an all-consuming political war over Trump’s relationship with Russia, a fight that would consume both his presidency and the country for years. Trump, for his part, never seemed interested in dispelling his opponents’ suspicions. During a campaign news conference, he asked the Russians to find a tranche of Hillary Clinton’s emails, a request that was directly followed by an actual Russian-backed email hacking attempt. Later, as president, he divulged classified information to Russian officials in the Oval Office, refused to accept his own government’s account of Russia’s role in the 2016 election and sided with Vladimir Putin on that question at a summit in Helsinki. “He just said it’s not Russia,” Trump said. “I don’t see any reason why it would be.” Just this past December, when news of a devastating cyberattack on the federal government was made public, almost everyone, including members of Trump’s cabinet and his former homeland security adviser, attributed the attack to Russia, but Trump pointedly did not. “Everything is well under control,” the president tweeted — before raising the possibility that China, not Russia, was the culprit.
For many Trump critics, the Russia question still lingers. John Brennan, a former C.I.A. director, has noted Trump’s “strange obsequiousness” to Putin; Jim Comey, a former F.B.I. director, has acknowledged the possibility that the Russians “have leverage.” “I suspect they may have something on him either financial or personal, or both, but that’s just speculation,” James Clapper, a former director of national intelligence, wrote to me in an interview conducted by email in late 2020. “I don’t know, but it’s hard to come up with another plausible explanation for his inexplicable deference.” The worries about Trump’s loyalties extend into his own circle. Dan Coats, who served under Trump as director of national intelligence, harbored “deep suspicions” that Putin “had something” on Trump, according to a book by Bob Woodward. (Some Trump critics remain skeptical. I asked John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, what he would say to those who claim that Trump is compromised by Russia. “I’d say the same thing to them that I’d say to the Trump campaign about the so-called fraud in the election,” he replied. “Where’s the evidence?”)
Few Trump allies on Capitol Hill go as far as Flynn or Alex Jones, but many partake of the same grievance narrative, in which the Russia-related wounds inflicted on Trump’s legitimacy after the 2016 election somehow justify their refusal to accept the outcome of this one. “It bothers me greatly that they would be monitoring the incoming national security adviser,” Senator Lindsey Graham told me, referring to Flynn’s treatment by departing members of the Obama administration. “That is really damaging to the transition of power.” (Graham’s claim that Flynn was monitored is misleading. There is no evidence that Flynn’s communications were singled out for persistent surveillance; instead it was what he said and whom he said it to that caused some of his calls to surface later.)
It took until Jan. 6 for Graham to formally recognize Biden as the legitimate president-elect; when we spoke in mid-December, he did not seem sure how best to refer to his former Senate colleague. “I am sure that the uh, the uh, Biden administration-in-waiting is talking to people all over the world right now,” he said, arguing that Flynn’s engagement with the Russians during the transition was normal. The Obama administration “had no business getting the transcripts” of Flynn’s calls, he said, because Flynn was “talking to the Russian ambassador as the national security adviser.”
At the more vocal end of electoral deniers is Representative Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio. Without offering any evidence, Jordan alleged that the Obama administration concocted a “plot” to “take down Michael Flynn” because Flynn’s intelligence background meant he would “figure out what they did” to Trump. “We hear so much about this term ‘peaceful transfer of power,’” Jordan told me in mid-December. “They didn’t follow that. They were trying not to let him” — that is, Trump — “be president.”
The crisis of Trump’s departure from Washington has exposed the degree to which factions in American political life now inhabit entirely separate realities. But to understand that divergence, which has taken increasingly dire forms as a new presidential transition concludes, it’s important to revisit the transition of four years ago: Trump’s own messy ascension to the presidency, with its murkiness surrounding his relationship with Russia and the debate over what to do about it. The questions that Obama’s national-security team had to come to grips with about its successors almost sound like the premise of an airport novel. Was the president-elect a Manchurian candidate? Was he secretly videotaped by the Russian security service? Was his national security adviser a Russian asset? In January 2017, with less than three weeks to go before Trump assumed power, it was up to them to decide how to continue the Russia investigation under a president who could easily wind up in its cross hairs.
The earliest debates about how to deal with Trump have been recorded by congressional testimony, recently declassified documents, investigations by the Justice Department’s inspector general and a five-volume report by the Senate Intelligence Committee. In addition to existing sources, this account draws on interviews and correspondence with more than a dozen participants who experienced both sides of the transition firsthand. Looming over all of those events was the same, bracing question that America faces now, on the eve of a new transition: In our era of extreme polarization, can the presidency successfully pass from one party to the other without the entire political system threatening to fall apart?